Friday, April 27, 2012

Dwindling Sales And Free Is For Losers: Myth Or Reality?

One of the biggest advantages indies have over the traditional publishing world is agility – being able to change strategic direction within a few weeks, days or even hours.

One of the biggest disadvantages indies have is agility. Sometimes it’s TOO easy to change direction. Timing the market is important, true. Timing it wisely is even more so.

Chasing any trend just for the sake of hoping to emulate success isn’t good strategy. Ditching a previously viable activity or tool at the first sign of poor performance without understanding all the variables involved isn’t good strategy. While being early in and/or early out can be quite lucrative when new tools come along or play out their usefulness, the old adage of “look before you leap” continues to be sage advice. If the only reason you have for entering or exiting a promotion is that everyone else is doing it, then take some time to understand why “everyone” else is acting the way they are and figure out if it’s a true market trend or simply people acting on blind instinct  – or fear.

Part of the problem, I think, rests in how many of the indies define “success.” Self-pubbing is still relatively new. Many indies don’t even have year-over-year results to compare to. But you have to compare how you’re doing now to some other arbitrary time to determine if you’re succeeding or failing, right? That’s how business works. Well, there’s also seasonal adjustments to consider. What promotions were offered. And what bases you’re comparing to make your determinations: income? ranking? copies sold? Smart businesses look at all the data at hand before assuming instant success or failure from their plans.

Two big concerns for indies right now appear to be the diminishing value of Select and the diminishing value of 99¢. But are these diminishing values that clear-cut?


Amazon just released its Top 100 Sellers of 2011 list. I count at least 10 books on the list that made it there priced at 99¢. I also see that these 99¢ books account for roughly half of the indie books on that list. A quick peek shows about half of these 99¢ books are in the Top 1000 and the other about-half are hovering under #3000. Buyers don’t appear to be warded off by the 99¢ price point.

SECTOR C made it into the Top 100 because of a 99¢ promotion. The Rent-A-Groom made it into the Top 200 because of a 99¢ promo. Over the past couple of weeks I can cite a dozen more books with similar sales and rankings based on a drop to 99¢. I can also point to two Steel Magnolia Press books that have good and consistent sales at 99¢ – over 500 sold this month for one, over 400 sold for the other. In counter-balance, there is one 99¢ book that sold 1200 copies in its first two months but whose sales have stalled this month. Nothing is ever guaranteed in this business.

So why the lament over 99¢? I believe there may be three reasons:
  • Perceived value – readers who care enough to frequent the forums and answer surveys tend to equate low price with low quality, and authors want to avoid the stigma of the 99¢ ghetto.
  • Lack of the right marketing – some authors try to use the price as their only marketing tool, and when that doesn’t move copies, they blame the price.
  • The 35% royalty rate – some authors want (and some demand) more than 35%. When John Locke sold his first million copies, some indies were quick to point out he’d “only” made $350,000. Dissatisfaction with compensation generally leads to blaming factors other than the obvious ones and making the results appear self-fulling.

Based on what I’ve seen and experienced (let’s call it subjectively objective), I’m not of a mind that the 99¢ price point is dead or that it’s even on life-support. Buyers appear to want 99¢ books when those books are marketed to them in the right way. What is “dead” is the belief that an author can publish up a book at 99¢ without any supporting marketing and have readers flock to it in droves. And I think that disappointment by authors who staked their sales on price point alone is what’s driving the angst over 99¢.

Free and Select

But free really is dying and Select is gasping away, right? With the number of people voicing their disappointment over diminished numbers of free downloads, post-free sales and borrows, it would seem so to the casual observer. Likewise the number of folk who’ve left Select and the numbers who claim they will as soon as their current term is over.

Is it, however, that the Select model no longer works or that buying behaviors have changed? Sometimes tweaking a once-successful tool slightly can yield surprising results. Does Amazon abandon every tool at its disposal when they no longer provide the hoped-for results or does it tweak the proven ones as a first defense against eroding sales and margins?

So why does free no longer seem to be the lure it once was? 
  • Fewer downloads – Is the overall number of free downloads the same now as it was only spread across more books? Or does it just seem like fewer downloads? In response to this complaint back in March, I compared how many downloads it took to hit the same rank across multiple dates. Because I had good data for it, I did this for several ranks between #50 and #150. Guess what? No difference.

    Today I compared that data against the 7 free books I watched on April 9. Across the board, it took about 20% fewer downloads to hit the same ranks as before. That means on that one day, at least, there were indeed 20% fewer downloads than in the months before. But this is only one day, one data point. I’m not prepared to call this a trend based off this result. It will bear watching, though.

What about Select makes it appear to be in its death throes not even 5 months beyond its launch? 
  • Fewer post-free sales – Most folk are citing an average of one-third the sales post-free in this past month compared to previous months. Some are seeing considerably fewer, some are seeing a drop of less than one-half. I haven’t seen anyone say they’ve gotten MORE post-free sales recently.
  • Shorter post-free bumps – Anecdotal reports are that the bump has tapered off from about 3 weeks to about a week.
  • Fewer borrows – Anecdotal evidence suggests this is across-the-board behavior.

Fair enough – when the numbers and the model are looked at in isolation. With the exception of a few outliers, numbers are diminishing. But are they doing so by a significant amount? And are they doing so when the equations are adjusted to account for other variables: 
  • Seasonality – Strongest sales and free downloads were in the two months post-Christmas. Are we in a seasonal decline right now? Or were those first two months after Christmas when millions of Kindles/Fires were gifted the exception?
  • The end of the Prime promo – Fires sold at Christmas came with one month of free Prime. While this could explain any drop-off in borrows between January and February, something else has to be at work to create the continuing month-to-month drop-off. The 30% increase in the number of books available? Buyer disinterest?
  • Buyer behavior – Are folk becoming more selective? Has the novelty of buying books for a new device worn off? Is an early spring keeping folk more active and away from reading? Are folk buying traditional books and non-Select books instead of Select books?
  • Amazon’s adjustments to shelf placement – This is by far one of the most damaging changes to have occurred and one that can, indeed, be linked to part of the reason for diminished post-sales results. But is Amazon simply testing the waters? Will they be rearranging the shelves again shortly?
  • Marketing efforts – Are authors setting books free too often, for too many days or too few days? What’s the sweet spot? Are authors who get no mentions on the big freebook sites and do poorly for one or two free runs giving up too soon? Are some authors not marketing at all – or marketing to the same folk each time they have a free promo?

Some folk claim that every time Amazon makes an adjustment to its algorithms or the way it displays products, indies take a hit. Here’s what I think. Those adjustments produce a larger divide, rewarding successful titles and ignoring the less-successful ones. Since, let’s face it, the majority of indie books fall on the less-successful side, those authors are louder in their decrying of what they consider Amazon’s anti-indie sentiments.

What’s happening, though, is that those adjustments are forcing indies to become stronger. Indies have to work harder and smarter and put out ever-better books in order for Amazon to give them better shelf placement and recommend them to buyers.

Not all indies are created equal. There is no entitlement that goes along with being an indie. There is no agreement with Amazon that all indies will be treated equally, either within the group of indie vendors or among all vendors, traditional and indie alike.

A lot of the disillusionment I’m hearing is from authors who believe Amazon is somehow betraying them by 1) having given them a tool to help with discoverability and with the ability to catapult sales and then 2) throttling that ability so that only the stronger, more successful books continue to reap higher rewards.

If you’re an indie, you CHOSE to self-publish. You CHOSE to enter a competitive business and to go up against the big boys. Part of that choosing means you have to put on all the business hats the big boys bring with them, which includes sales and marketing, and it means stepping up your game in order to compete. Amazon guarantees you a platform through which to sell your books; it does not guarantee it will help you, specifically, sell your books. Believing there was any agreement to that effect is where I think a lot of the disgruntlement is coming from.

For some, the Select model will never work. For others, it hasn’t stopped working. And for that vast demographic in between, the way one uses the model will need to be tweaked to make it sustainable. Understanding why it does and doesn’t work is the first step in tweaking. Gaining that objective understanding takes time and hard work – neither of which many authors are willing to invest. For them, it’s easier to simply cry foul and abandon the tool.

To be honest, I can’t be too unhappy about that as a whole since it means less competition in the Select arena for me. But it doesn’t mean the work to keep the model sustainable will be any easier.

For me, personally and for Steel Magnolia Press, the Select model continues to work. Are we seeing diminished returns? Yes. But we're prepared to work for our sales. We're prepared to be realistic about the return on our investment. And we're prepared to measure success in concrete terms that, right now, Select is helping us to surpass. Just because sales are not as stellar this month as they were in January or February does not mean our realistic goals haven't been met.

Going forward, we'll be vigilant, we'll be agile and we'll continue to snatch at opportunity when it comes knocking. 


M.P. McDonald said...

I've been in Select since the beginning and I'm going to stick with it for the foreseeable future. I had a great Dec and Jan. Feb was 'slow'--but that's relative. It was twice what I sold the Feb before and I had just released my second book in Feb 2011, so I had a bit of a push from that. Feb 2011 had been a very good month at that time. Funny how a good month in 2011 became a so-so month in 2012 even though I earned twice as much. I wasn't worried about Feb (this year) because I was busy getting my 3rd book ready for a March release. Sure enough, March, with the help of the new book and a free promo of my first, turned into my 2nd best month ever. This month is down a bit, but in 22 months of self publishing it would still rank in the top 6 or so.

I'm doing a short term 99 cent promo right now and it's doing okay. I know Select/free/99 cents aren't the right choices for everyone, but I like to shake things up every now and then.

Michael said...

Oops, let me try again, not from my wife's account. :P

Phoenix, this is a great analysis that provides some contrast to other, more pessimistic views that I've read recently.

Toni Dwiggins said...

Select may be losing its oomph, but I've found it to be the best promo tool I've ever used. Even with less oomph, it still gets books in front of reader eyes.

The bottom line, for me, is that my baseline sales are now much higher than they were before I did my first promo (in mid-January).

J. R. Tomlin said...

You made some good points, Phoenix. As much as I have complained lately about the changes in the bookshelf, and God knows, I have complained, Select has been good to me.

We talk about a drop off after 3 weeks or whatever, but the fact is that my historical novels have never gone back to the sales level they were at before Select. I can hardly complain about what Select has done for me.

Whether that means I should continue my novels in it is very much open to question though. I am seriously struggling with the question and whether the drop in sales to what degree my drop in sales is attributable to seasonal vagueries.

It's true that most of us have a year or less to make comparisons with. We have a serious shortage of information on which to base decisions. It is hardly ideal of good decision making but we have to decide and doing nothing is a decision as well.

As I've said elsewhere, I'm leaning strongly towards dropping out of Select to see what happens. But that would be more than a month down the road and a lot could change between now and then.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Mary: I love your comment about how a month's great sales in 2012 can look so-so now. How quickly we move from being stunned by our first 4-figure royalty payment into it becoming an expectation. Can't wait till a 5-figure payment becomes the expected :o).

@Thanks, Michael!

@Toni, I've been watching your successes, and I think your books are poster children for the Select model. For both you and Mary, releasing the second in your series seems to have been a real key for that extra push. That synergy is soooo important.

@Jeanne: You're smart enough to be watching what's going on, that's the main thing. A lot of folk continue to break out at BN and Apple. And with your two genres, you could choose to pull your hist fic series from Select and leave your fantasy books in and then compare how each performs. The flexibility is nice. And no truer words were spoken than "a lot could change" in a month!

Glenn Gamble said...

I believe that the diminishing borrows and sales are attributed to the time of year. Every spring and summer brings lower sales, but Select is still effective for its intended purposes IMO.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned is the ongoing changes at the big sites, particularly ENT. I love ENT, and that site has been good to me, but I did not expect their submission policy to change particularly the number of reviews required and their decision not to post the same title more than twice within 90-days.

Initially I was disappointed for I was submitting my titles every 30 days, but with every setback there's a positive. Here's the positives that I took away from their recent policy changes:

1) ENT will be a better site than ever

2) ENT will provide more variety to their members

3) I won't be able to overexpose my titles to ENT or to the Amazon marketplace.

Any improvements that makes them a better site are improvements for all authors who are picked up during their campaigns. It also forces me as an indie to improve my business practices by making a more concerted effort to get honest reviews and write more short stories and novels. Most importantly, it forces me to continue to strive to improve, not that I didn't strive to improve my craft before. In fact, my craft was always most important to me, but connecting with my readers and getting reviews took a backseat to my writing. Not necessarily the worst thing, but when we published our books, we decided to become our own business. Changes to Select and our partner sites will only force us to be more well rounded. Thanks for the blog post. :)

William King said...

Excellent post, Phoenix and very timely. I have had a lot of success with the 99 cent series leader but the flurry of complaints about it and the competition from increasing numbers of free books had started to make me doubt its viability.

After reading this I went back and checked my data. Sales are down a bit but the basic premise still seems to work so I'm sticking with it.

Select has also been good for me but I am reluctant to put all my eggs in one basket so my basic policy now is to launch books for 90 days on Select, take advantage of the free days and then launch them elsewhere.

I think it's unwise to write off Select at this early stage and I intend to always keep something in it so I can experiment with any new wrinkles Amazon gives it.On the other hand I would like to take advantage of other markets.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

Thanks, Phoenix, I didn't even realize I'd made the Top 100 list last year until I read your blog. Now if I can only get Amazon to put up the "living" version of that ebook, I'll be happy!

Oddly, I don't really monitor my data that closely. I go by the "big feel and motion." So I can't say what is happening down to the decimal point, and even when people figure it out, it is already changing by the time someone blogs about it. So I just don't worry and keep doing what feels like the right thing to do.